Describing Collective Cognition

By Alison Schroeder and Dr. Sara McComb

Numerous studies have shown that collective cognition is an important aspect of team performance.  However, most of these studies chose only one way of examining cognition.  The two most commonly used cognitive structures are shared mental models and transactive memory systems.  Shared mental models developed from the notion that expert, or high-performing, teams did not need to communicate as often.  They describe the process through which team members are able to define the system’s goals, states, functions, etc., sometimes without the need for communication.  Transactive memory systems, on the other hand, grew out of the observation that teams trained together outperformed teams trained individually.  This cognitive structure describes not only what knowledge individual team members have but also who knows what information.  DeChurch and Mesmer-Magnus attempted to integrate the findings of many studies through their meta-analysis [1] by describing cognition using three sub-categories: (1) nature of emergence, (2) form of cognition, and (3) content of cognition.

Nature of cognition can be thought of as either compositional or compilational.  Compositional emergence describes a process in which the individual level knowledge is analogous to the team level knowledge.  In other words, it assesses the agreement among team members’ mental models.  Compilational emergence, however, describes a process in which the individual level knowledge is expressed in a different form in the team level knowledge.  Thus, compilational emergence assesses the amount of complementary knowledge possessed by the team members.  As you may notice, compositional and compilational emergence are characteristic of shared mental models and transactive memory systems, respectively.

Form of cognition can be broken into two main sub-categories: (1) perceptual or (2) structural.  Perceptual cognition models the team members’ beliefs, actions, etc., but it does not capture any causal links among them.  When determining perceptual cognition, researchers tend to use Likert scales to assess similarity.  Structural cognition does capture those relationships among variables; however, it does not attempt to model the content in any way.  Pairwise comparisons and multidimensional scaling are common methods used to assess structural cognition.  In recent years, a third form of cognition has begun to emerge, interpretive cognition.  This form involves researchers inferring cognitive relationships from qualitative analyses such as interviews and observations.

The content of cognition can be thought of as either task-related or team-related.  Task-related content deals mainly with the physical aspects of the task such as specific goals, necessary equipment and resources, etc.  Team-related content focuses on the interdependence of the team members.  In other words, when the content involves information about roles and responsibilities of team members or how team members should interact with one another, it is considered team-related.

As you can see, with so many ways of describing collective cognition, it is important to study how each aspect of cognition affects team performance as well as what interactions may be present among these aspects.  Most current research focuses only on one aspect, limiting the possibilities of the research.  DeChuch and Mesmer-Magnus detailed what can currently be derived from the extant literature.  In our next blog, we will highlight the findings reported in their meta-analysis.


  1. DeChurch, L. and Mesmer-Magnus, J. The Cognitive Underpinnings of Effective Teamwork: A Meta-Analysis. Journal of Applied Psychology. 95(1):32-53, 2010.


  1. schroe32

    The issue of measurement is still evolving in the literature. A recent review by Mohammed and colleague (2010) provides a nice overview of the approaches that have been used to measure shared mental models. Additionally, the paper by Mathieu and colleagues (2000) provides a concrete example of one approach to measuring task and team mental models.

    Mathieu JE, Heffner TS, Goodwin GF, Salas E, Cannon-Bowers JA (2000). The Influence of Shared Mental Models on Team Process and Performance, Journal of Applied Psychology, 85(2): 273-283.

    Mohammed S, Ferzandi L, Hamilton K (2010). Metaphor No More: A 15-Year Review of the Team Mental Model Construct, Journal of Management, 36(4): 876-910.

  2. semsblog

    Very interesting approach to think about the content of cognition. How one would measure objectively task-related or team-related cognition? Thank you for sharing your thoughts on SEMS blog!

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